Banya 101 To not bathe in a banya at least three times a week was practically taken as sheer evidence of foreign origins
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History of Banya

Apostle Andrew wrote in 11:13: "Wondrous to relate, I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bath-houses. They warm themselves to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. They then drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day and actually inflict such voluntary torture upon themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."

Going to the banya is a well-aged Slavic custom. Even during the medieval times it was seen as a universally popular and national past-time. To not bathe in a banya at least three times a week was practically taken as sheer evidence of foreign origins.

Most villagers in Slavic world had a bathhouse (also known as a sauna in today’s world) and every noble household had its own steam house as well. Another important even called a communal bath was held at many towns and villages where men and women sat steaming themselves, beating one another with veniks (bundled twigs) and rolling around together in the snow. Peter the Great attempted to stamp out the banya as a relic of medieval Russia and encouraged the building of Western bathrooms in the palaces and mansions of St. Petersburg. Despite heavy taxes placed on the traditional Russian Sauna, noblemen continued to prefer the elder, well aged Russian bath and by the end of the eighteenth century, nearly every palace in St. Petersburg had one.

Going to the bathhouse often was regarded as a way of getting rid of many illnesses. It was called the “people's first doctor” (vodka was the second, raw garlic the third). There were also a variety of magical beliefs associated with it in folklore. To go to the banya was to give both your body and your soul a good cleaning and it was the custom to perform this purge as a part of important rituals. The bathhouse was the place for the ritual pre-marriage bathe as well as for the delivery of babies. It was warm and clean and private, in a series of bathing rituals that lasted forty days, it purified the mother from the bleeding of birth.

The banya’s role in prenuptial rituals was also to ensure the woman's purity: the bride was washed in the banya by her maids on the eve of her wedding. It was a custom in some places for the bride and the groom to go to the bath house before their wedding night. These were not just peasant rituals however; they were shared by the provincial nobility and even by the court in the final decades of the seventeenth century. This intermingling of pagan bathing rites with Christian rituals was equally pronounced as the “Clean Monday”. On these holy days it was customary for the Russian family to clean the house, washing all the floors, clearing out the cupboards, purging the establishment of any rotten or unholy foods, and then, when this was all done, to visit the bath house and clean the body.

During the next few hundred years that led into the modern times, almost all of the old rituals and traditions have died out. However, one thing remains true: banya is as popular as ever. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the proof of health benefits of steam bathing, the banya steadily and continually makes its way into the Western Culture and is a highly desirable form of a sauna.

More information about the history of Banya is available at http://www.cyberbohemia.com/Pages/russianbaniahistory.htm

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